Listen Up!

Sam Cooke, Freddie Mercury and the Celebrity's Moral Obligation to Address Social Issues

The Queen biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, is a Best Picture nominee at this weekend's Academy Awards
The Queen biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, is a Best Picture nominee at this weekend's Academy Awards Soundtrack album cover

What responsibility does a celebrity have to speak on the day’s pressing social matters? It’s an old question with a new twist since today’s social media platforms and connectivity create more “famous” people than ever before. That means more opportunities for more socially-conscious celebrities to share their own political and philosophical platforms. Does the glut of celebrity voices created by Instagram, viral videos and 500 channels  make it harder for someone with something to say to be heard? Do we pay less heed to our cultural idols than we did before they became ubiquitous? And, if it’s harder to be heard through the din of voices, what extremes might someone take to ensure their constituency’s concerns are being addressed?

These were some of the questions bouncing around my brain after a music-centric night of TV watching. I finally (and just days before its Oscar bow) saw Bohemian Rhapsody, the Queen biopic, which I snagged from Redbox on my first opportunity. Thanks to a tip from a friend, I double-featured the night by viewing the new Netflix documentary, The Two Killings of Sam Cooke. Besides an entire evening of listening to some of the best music of the last half of the 20th century, the films depicted, in part, how their central characters – legendary soul singer Sam Cooke and legendary rock singer Freddie Mercury – considered their moral obligations to use their station to bring awareness to the injustices or social issues of their respective eras.

My friend Selena veered me to the Sam Cooke documentary, part of Netflix’s ReMastered series of investigative music docs. Selena once wrote for these very pages and a while back we teamed for a story where our editor asked us to imagine any music legend from any music era playing one night at an existing Houston music venue. Selena chose Sam Cooke.

“His voice managed to oscillate effortlessly between velvety smooth to rough and raw, always sounding pitch-perfect. There aren't a lot of singers like him anymore,” Selena wrote.

I was already a Sam Cooke fan. Reading her take, I became a Selena fan that day. I trust her music judgment so when she endorsed “The Two Killings of Sam Cooke,” the documentary moved high up my watch list. The film openly questions the official story of Cooke’s killing, at the wrong end of a bullet fired by a motel manager who claimed Cooke was attempting to attack her in December 1964. At the time it was silenced, Cooke was using his pitch-perfect voice for more than pop music hits. He was taking a leading role as an activist in the burgeoning American Civil Rights movement.

Interviews with music historians and Cooke’s acquaintances suggest any such attack was completely out of his character and seem to support the notion that Cooke might have been targeted for his involvement and outspokenness in the movement. At the time of his death, Cooke had already charted 30 Top 40 hits. He was a crossover sensation, someone whose vocal gifts resonated with black and white listeners. Someone against the movement might see his popularity and position as a threat, the film suggests.

Mercury’s story has been retold recently, too, in last year’s box-office monster, Bohemian Rhapsody. It may be Best Picture nominated, but the film isn’t perfect, as many Queen purists have specified. It plays fast and loose with timelines and such; but, it does address the front man’s sexuality and his ultimate and untimely death by AIDS-related causes.

Cooke died the year before I was born, but Mercury died more than two dozen years later and when he was sick with the disease, my own brother-in-law, David, was also diagnosed with the illness. Our family lived through the harrowing AIDS decade of the 1980s. Other families like ours learned by diagnosis what HIV and AIDS were.  Our loved one was shunned by people he knew. He was terminated from employment because of his diagnosis. Our family got involved in AIDS-related communities. We made friends and then made quilts in their honor for the NAMES Project. Eventually, we witnessed the disease take David’s life. It was a brutal experience, but we faced it together and mined some beautiful, human moments from it all.

It’s easy to recall how the community was puzzled by Mercury’s choice to not speak about the illness to bring further awareness to the subject. A lot was at stake then and Mercury was a global superstar. He died in 1991 and famously never publicly confirmed he was stricken with the ailment until the day before his death.
Mercury’s official statement hinged on his desire for personal privacy, a commodity that probably seemed less abundant with the band’s growing superstardom. In the movie, he makes a speech to his bandmates about being diagnosed and tells them he didn't want to be the AIDS poster boy, that he preferred to spend his remaining days performing and creating music, as he felt he was born to do. These many years later, that explanation seems palatable. Who would begrudge a dying man the prerogative to live his final days as he saw fit?  Back then I wondered why he didn't speak out and now I wonder whether he was obligated to speak out at all.

Though their paths were divergent in these areas while they lived, after their respective deaths Cooke and Mercury continued to spark discussion and action in the Civil Rights and AIDS arenas. It’s as if the height of fame they’d each achieved was enough to keep their figures central to these matters.

Which brings us back to the question of modern celebrity and the responsibilities or rights these many vaunted personalities have to speak on societal issues. It’s an old question with new twists. There’s a black, gay actor who stars in a music-oriented television series who was just charged with making a false police report about a racist attack he says he suffered. He claims he was beaten by MAGA-hat wearing perpetrators and his story is presently under fire. Consider the motive he’d have for fabricating such a story. One assumes it would hinge on hatred for his race and/or sexuality. There are no winners in this case, no reason for anyone to gloat one way or the other; but, it seems like it would be an indictment of sorts on us all to know he was compelled to devise such a desperate scheme just to address issues Sam Cooke and Freddie Mercury were battling against decades ago.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.